These 16 Butler County foster kid beat the odds to get their high school diplomas

Nakia Woods, right, stands with her coordinator Lori Woodrum during the annual Butler County Children Services graduation celebration is Thursday, June 20 in Hamilton. Woods was a Lakota East student and is working with Proctor & Gamble through Project Reach. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Caption
Nakia Woods, right, stands with her coordinator Lori Woodrum during the annual Butler County Children Services graduation celebration is Thursday, June 20 in Hamilton. Woods was a Lakota East student and is working with Proctor & Gamble through Project Reach. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The 16 Butler County Children Services foster kids who graduated high school this year have spent a total of 77 years in the foster care system and beat the odds to get their diplomas, officials said.

Every year, Children Services employees throw a party for foster youth who graduate from high school. The workers make the luncheon, and each graduate is sent off with big baskets of supplies they’ll need at college or going into the workforce.

Abby Sexton, independent living and emancipation coordinator for Children Services, told the Journal-News when she arrived at the agency in 2002 not a single foster child graduated. The group of 16 is one of the largest classes so far because they didn’t lose many who could have exited the system when they turned 18.

RELATED: ‘Your heart just swells’: These 10 Butler County foster kids have defied the odds

“I’m really not quite sure why the change this year, I don’t know if maybe these kiddos are listening to us finally,” she said. “Or they are just making a very smart decision to stay and complete their education and then take full advantages of the Bridges program.”

Known as “Bridges,” a new law passed in 2017 extends the foster care emancipation age to 21, and provides housing and support to those who would otherwise be on their own at age 18.

“I think all of us that are working with these kids are more excited about the ones that stay because we know how important that diploma is, and how it’s the key to the next step,” she said. “Whether it be college or just entering into the workforce, that diploma gets them so much further than if they would have left at 18 and had nothing.”

In Ohio, about 1,000 youth emancipate out of the foster care system every year, and only half of them get their diploma or a GED.

One of Sexton’s charges was part of the graduating class, now Camaury Gaines is hopefully headed for Miami University Hamilton in the fall. He said he couldn’t have done it without Sexton’s help.

“I look at her like an aunt, kind of,” Gaines said. “She always looks out for me, she fights for me. I don’t know, she’s just really been all around great to me.”

Sexton said they are working now to get Gaines enrolled at school. He wants to be a doctor.

“I want to become a neurologist and see what else happens after that,” he told the Journal-News. “But I also want to come back and help kids that was in my situation and show them you can still do it, that it’s possible.”

MORE: Leaders hopeful foster emancipation extension will become reality

Butler County Job and Family Services Executive Director Bill Morrison said they always encourage their foster children to try and lift themselves out of the lives they’ve been forced to live.

“Just like kids who come out of regular Butler County families, some of them succeed in their high aspirations, and some of them don’t succeed in those high aspirations,” Morrison said. “But we want them to be thinking about what’s the best life they can have because that’s really how you break the cycle of abuse and neglect.”

Sexton said this year seven of the graduates are going to college or trade school, six are getting jobs, two are considering the military and one is incarcerated in the Butler County Jail. She said it is “disheartening” when one of their former charges crosses to the wrong side of the law, and unfortunately, it is not rare.

“The rate of youth within two years I think that are incarcerated or homeless is just astronomical,” she said.